Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Misreading The Polls From Both Directions

Pivoting off of what I wrote yesterday about the health care reform bill, I'd like to further examine the role of public opinion polling in the debate. Conservatives point to the fact that while the polls have fluctuated somewhat, a consistent majority of the public seems to be in opposition. Liberals (those that concede that the polling is valid, that is) counter that individual components of Obama's plan poll extremely well, and that the only reason people oppose the bill as a whole is because of Republican scaremongering and flim-flammery. Who's right?

In my view, both groups are interpreting the data somewhat self-servingly. While opposition is clearly significant, it has fluctuated wildly, and people with experience in polling know that widely divergent results can result from wording the same question in a poll two different ways. Furthermore, it's not clear that a majority of the public is even aware of what's in the bill, as the fact that at one point a majority of people favored a "public option" with a majority of those not even knowing what a "public option" was. Hence, Republican claims that public opposition is "overwhelming", "massive", or the like are very likely overstated.

However, of the two sides I have to conclude that it's the liberals who are being more disingenuous, perhaps because they're the party in power and they're attempting to shill their own policy. The claim that most provisions of Obamacare poll well is superficially true, but when you subject it to even mild scrutiny it becomes essentially meaningless. Sure, vast majorities of people favor extending coverage to the uninsured, reducing the number of medically-induced bankruptcies, preventing insurance companies from discrimanating against people with pre-existing conditions or dropping insurees who develop expensive medical problems for dubious reasons, etc. - when these things are asked about in a cost-free vacuum. In the real world, such measures cost money, and the parts of the bill that aim to offset those costs - the individual mandate, the tax on existing high-end plans, the Medicare cuts, etc. - happen to be the parts of the bill that are unpopular. I love chocolate chip cookies, and if you ask me if I am in favor of receiving one for dessert, sure, I'll say yes. Tell me I'll have to pay $50 for it, and I'll pass. The same appears to be true of a great segment of the public when it comes to the goodies in the healthcare bill. Furthermore, for all the Democrats' talk of "bending the cost curve", many voters remain rightly skeptical of the notion that a massive, expensive new entitlement is somehow going to end up costing taxpayers less money. Advocates for the bill have been claiming since the beginning that it will save money, completely ignoring the facts that their pricetag estimates assume that as-of-yet theoretical cost containment measures will work perfectly in practice, and that the decade-long window they chose to focus on includes a full ten years' worth of taxes but only six years' of payouts. The history of government entitlement spending, not just in the U.S. but everywhere, indicates that such programs almost never end up costing less than the sticker price, and often end up costing a lot, lot more, and of course the C.B.O., when they actually had some solid numbers to crunch, agreed. They still haven't released numbers on the newer version of the bill the House is attempting to pass on to the Senate for reconciliation, possibly because they're still trying to finesse the numbers to get a defensible score, and for voters alarmed about the size of the deficit, that's hardly reassuring. The fiscal aspects of this bill just can't be ignored or massaged away with fuzzy, highly speculative math, but that is overwhelmingly what liberals seem to want to do. In short, there are many components to this bill about which the public is either dubious or staunchly unenthusiastic, so it's not necessary to invoke the power of Republican messaging voodoo to explain why the public opposes it as a whole in spite of the popularity of several of the individual components. I suspect that a bill that would give everyone in the U.S. a free house, a new car, a private jet, and six months of vacation a year, but also mandate that everyone commit suicide on their 30th birthday, would be unlikely to be very popular even though "most" of the individual provisions would be. The same logic applies here.

Both sides are convinced that the public actually agrees with them, even when there is evidence to the contrary. I suppose if the bill passes, we'll find out in November.

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